KIDS
April 10, 2013

Public Pre-K: Meets and Exceeds Its Goals

Pre-K programs can help kids with school readiness. But they also bring important and unexpected side benefits that last a lifetime.

Giving kids "enriched" environments that offer lots of variety and opportunities to learn does developing brains a lot of good. And early education has been shown to benefit kids’ academic success for years to come. Because of these well-illustrated findings, more states — 40 and counting — are beginning to roll out public prekindergarten programs. Now it appears the programs do even more than advertised.

Pre-Kindergarten programs are designed to give kids a leg up on school, but budgetary concerns have led some to wonder whether the programs are really worth it in the long-run. Harvard-based researchers decided to study 2,000 children entering the Boston Public School system to see if pre-K programs really do benefit kids in meaningful ways.

About half of the children were enrolled in pre-K because their birthdays fell before Boston’s September 1 deadline; the other half, born slightly later, had to wait a year to enroll. In Boston, there are no income requirements for pre-K enrollment, so the kids in the study were from a range of socioeconomic statuses.

Pre-K offered spillover effects, such as improvements in children's ability to make decisions, control their tempers, and get along with others. These skills have been shown to predict future success, not just in school, but in life.

The researchers measured the program’s effects on the kids' math, language, and literacy skills, which the pre-K program directly aims to improve. They also measured “spillover” effects on the children's development, looking at whether programs improved such executive functions as children's ability to make decisions, control their tempers, and get along with others. These skills have been shown to predict future success, not just in school, but in life.

The kids who were enrolled in the pre-K program did indeed have better math, language, and literacy skills, compared to kids who were not in the program. Executive functions also were stronger among those in pre-K, an added bonus, since these were not a direct goal. The authors suggest that because the linguistic, verbal, and math skills that are targeted involve heavy cognitive skills, it’s natural that the mental abilities involved in executive functions would be improved too.

The authors believe that the results are probably due to a combination of effects including using a tested curriculum and having well-educated (mainly master’s level) teachers to carry it out. Latino children benefited most from being in pre-K, which previous studies have also found. Since the enrollment of this group in pre-K programs is typically lower than that for white, African-American, and Asian-American children, the authors hope that efforts will continue to be made to encourage Latino families to enroll kids in pre-K.

“Research shows that these kinds of skills — which reflect early brain development, the ability to focus, and behavior — are critical to children's success down the road," study author Christina Weiland said in a statement. Hopefully as more research illustrates the tangible benefits of pre-K, the remaining 10 states will jump on board and offer free (and quality) programs to kids as well.

The study is published in the journal Child Development.

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